Advanced Reality taps Excel

Houston-based start-up Advanced Reality Inc. has come out of the blocks with software that adds real-time collaboration capabilities to existing copies of Microsoft Corp. Excel.

Presence-AR for Excel allows users to launch peer-to-peer collaborative sessions within Excel, allowing them to create and modify spreadsheets in real time with an unlimited number of users across the network, according to company officials.

By using the existing Excel interface, company officials claim their product can significantly cut down on the training needed to help users adapt and learn a new interface and work in a separate collaborative workspace.

The new adapter is designed to support the spreadsheet’s core functions such as the ability to enter formulas; edit data and formulas; cut, copy, and paste cells; drag and drop cells; and create and insert new workbooks directly into a collaborative session.

The new software also allows a session to persist or fail-over, even if the host system is disconnected. The product also offers load balancing and supports client-server configurations, making it possible for a collaborative session to be hosted by a server so users can come and go from that session.

“We think this ability to add real-time collaboration, virtually overnight, and to use the familiar Excel interface is a significant opportunity to enhance productivity,” said Derek Ruths, Advanced Reality’s chief technology officer.

Some analysts are impressed with the technology behind the product, believing that with some of its features it compares favourably to other peer-to-peer and team collaboration products now on the market.

“I think this product goes beyond Groove [Networks] in some ways. For instance, with Advanced Reality, multiple users can be working on the same document in real time. With Groove’s [environment], for instance, there is still one person who needs to have control over it,” said French Caldwell, vice-president of information knowledge management at Gartner, in Stamford, Conn. “I would say that companies like Groove and team collaborative vendors should take a look at partnering with them,” he said.

But one thing lacking in Advanced Reality’s strategy is a solid OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and/or value-added reseller strategy that might provide the start-up with a way to more quickly distribute and adapt the product.

“Right now they are counting on individual companies to find a way to integrate it into their applications,” Caldwell said.

The Excel adapter can be enhanced to work with other desktop productivity applications including Lotus 1-2-3 and Sun Microsystems StarOffice, allowing those users to work together collaboratively on the same document,” Ruths said.

Ruths said the Presence-AR Adapter for Excel is the first of several more packaged products intended to add real-time collaborative capabilities to popular desktop applications.

The technology that allows this sort of collaboration among different applications is the “data-centric model” that makes the data collaborative and is not bound to any one hardware platform, operating system, application, or user interface.

Addressing security concerns, the new adapter encrypts data using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) as it moves among participants in a collaborative session. It can be configured to request multiple authentication technologies such as passwords, digital certificates, and token cards.

Users can purchase an enterprise site licence for an unlimited number of users starting at US$50,000. Integration and customized services for the base platform that best enable collaboration between Excel and other applications are also available, according to a company spokesman.